By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
Fire investigators have determined where a fire began Wednesday that damaged the inside of a planned Casper abortion clinic, a Casper Fire Department spokesman told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday.
The fire caused what has been described as extensive damage at the Wellspring Health Access facility on early Wednesday morning and investigators believe that it was intentionally set. While investigators announced they had found the point of origin for the fire, they did not report where it began.
“I don’t think anyone has actually left the scene since yesterday and we are working very closely with the police department on this investigation,” fire department spokesman Dane Anderson said Thursday.
Anderson said that while he had not been to the scene, there was reportedly a “significant” amount of smoke damage inside. He could not say how many minutes investigators believe the fire was burning, but he did say it was “not long.”
He added investigators are now working to determine if accelerants were used to start the fire and if so, what kind.
Wellspring Health Access owner Julie Burkhart told Cowboy State Daily that since law enforcement was still investigating the incident, she did not have much new information as of Thursday morning.
“We hope to be able to assess the damage in the near future,” she said.
She said on Wednesday that the fire would not prevent the clinic from opening.
“This is something I’ve been afraid of happening,” she said at the time. “I’ve worked in this field for a long time and I’ve seen vandalism, flooding, defacing property and buildings, but never arson.”
According to the Casper Police Department, police officers arrived at the clinic just before 4 a.m. Wednesday in response to a report of a business burglary.
When they arrived, they saw smoke rolling out of the clinic’s windows. The Casper Fire Department arrived on the scene and extinguished the fire.
The caller who reported the burglary said a person was seen running away from the building carrying a gas can and a black bag.
Police and fire investigators are now interviewing witnesses and reviewing footage from the clinic’s neighborhood.
Casper Police spokeswoman Rebekah Ladd did not immediately return Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment on Thursday.
The clinic has drawn much controversy since its opening was announced last month and was the subject of online debate after the fire.
Casper City Councilman Bruce Knell on Wednesday got into a series of online arguments about the the issue of abortion.
“I’m quite sure you’re not nearly as devastated as the unborn children who are ripped from the womb,” he wrote on a K2 News post about the fire at the clinic.
His comment started a back-and-forth with Casper citizens who condemned him for his comments.
“Idiots like you act like you care about children,” responded Julie Ann Schure. “But you complain if a woman collects welfare. And funny how I never hear people complain about men not taking care of their children.”
“If you don’t have a womb, you need to shut your damn mouth!!” she told Knell.
Knell went on to disagree with a number of commenters, bringing up what awaits people, he believes, if “God’s law” is broken.
“All I care about is people’s salvation,” he wrote. “And making sure they understand the word of our God because I can promise you hell is a nasty place.”
The new clinic between downtown Casper and the Wyoming Medical Center will be operated by Wellspring, which is incorporated in Washington, D.C., and headed up by founder Burkhart, who is based in Colorado.
The clinic is funded by private donors and has been created and supported by a community advisory board of 15 people, Burkhart previously said, including faith leaders, tribal communities and health care advocates.
Currently, Wyoming has only one abortion provider and 96% of Wyoming women live in a county without an abortion clinic.